Client: IDEO London
- As more and more relationships involve living in different places, how can long-distance relationships be supported with new technologies?
- What comprises a relationship, and how do physical and tangible things help to make it what it is?
Long Distance Love: http://vimeo.com/112953937
IDEO’s London office works with many different clients and issues, and is always interested in trying to explore and understand better the broader social and cultural issues which are affecting us. These influence the types of problems their clients face, and hence the design work that they do.
In the Summer of 2014, we collaborated with them to tackle the problems of staying intimate during long-distance relationships. From a design perspective, distance relationships may be a factor not only in telecommunications, but in many aspects of life. Most interestingly, technologies of tangible interfaces have very much advanced in recent years. The basic problem to be explored was the intersection of distance relationships (and the problems, social situations, identities, and values they involve) with design of tangible and intangible interfaces.
“We both started connecting more by communicating through music. Our way of flirting was sending each other music back and forth.”
A group of five postgraduate anthropologists with varied prior backgrounds (in business, marketing, product design, and interior design) initiated a user-centred conceptual design process. They interviewed fifteen people, individually or as a couple, involved in distance relationships; and researched the kinds of design responses and proposals to this situation.
“We just sent one or two messages to each other to say good morning and good night to make sure I’m still alive.”
The work was formulated around core questions, and hypotheses, about distance relationships. The group revisited, tested, and re-shaped these questions and hypotheses with IDEO as the work progressed. The team proposed that couples as a rule will – still, in this time of technology – prioritise physical relationships above meetings mediated by information technologies. This prioritisation has significant implications for how couples may feel a sense of mutual ownership over physical things; and also for how they are able to act together to romanticise their world and surroundings. Physical sensation and romanticisation are, the team felt, often linked.
“The physical aspect is very important for a relationship, when you don’t have it is not fulfilling the desire.”
People in distance relationships have a wide range of experiences, and express different kinds of feelings, strategies, and rationalisations of their situation. Many of their sentiments and experiences are paradoxical, but address similar kinds of tensions.
“The best thing about being apart is that I get to know myself better and moreover, it confirms my willingness to spend the rest of my life with Hugh.”
The material world which surrounds people in long-distance relationships can be pervaded by objects which signify relatedness. For some, certain kinds of object come to the fore, in a very obvious way. For others, the living space itself is suffused with the significant other. Material culture, both objects and digital culture, performs various functions. Things can be mementoes, souvenirs, functional, emotional, disturbing. There are certain ways of “presencing absence”. The studio team found the objects which people talked about to be unpredictable, often surprising. A photograph or a gift can be an obvious thing to act as a reminder of your partner, but a drum-kit, a T-shirt, or a watch can each have different stories, and act to blur and dissolve the boundaries of distance between people in
different, sensory ways.
The objects which are significant to people in long-distance relationships are not always predictable.
“The most fabulous day for long distance couples is the first day when they meet each other and exchange gifts.”
Following the research, a range of design concepts were developed, drawing on the ethnography and wider design work. After producing a range of design concepts, the students discussed them with their informants and IDEO, and talked about the implications they might have. The design work became a part of the deepening of the relationships with informants. A video, ‘Long Distance Love’, demonstrates some of these concepts and how they might happen.
Increasingly, many people actively describe themselves as being in a “long-distance relationship”. It is not just a passive state of being, it is an active cultural identity which people are making their own and even designing for. The students developed a range of design concepts by way of exploring this cultural situation. What they found was that the mundane world of everyday life is not just a passive canvas, it is a social medium through which sensory aspects of relationships, presence and absence, satisfaction and desire, are experienced. The mundane material world is here a potential design resource, much more charged with potential than we anticipated. Through examining it, we helped to define the range of problematics for individuals and couples in long-distance relationships which design needs to take account of.
People evaluated various design ideas, both in a simple yes/no fashion, and then in more detailed conversations about what the concepts might mean for them.
Long Distance Love: http://vimeo.com/112953937
Work conducted by: Annie Liu, Mandy (Yingqiu) Wu, Segolene Vielle-Cessay, Jenny (Mingzhe) Zhan, Anais Bloch
Collaborator at IDEO London: Jenny Winfield
Work Conducted: Summer 2014